Believe in the Stars (The Last War in Albion Part 8: Starblazer, the Pulps)

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This is the third of five installments of Chapter Two of The Last War in Albion. The entirety of chapters one and two are available as an ebook single at AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords. Please consider helping support this project by buying a copy. 

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Grant Morrison’s superhero strip Captain Clyde came to an ignoble end in 1981, but in many ways what was most unusual was that it existed at all, given that superheroes were not particularly popular within British comics, where you were likely to find a wider variety of comics… 

“Believe in the stars.” - Alan Moore, Dodgem Logic #4, 2010

The superhero is thus best used to describe a type of pulp hero story that emerged out of 1930s American comic books. Not all superheroes have their origins in comic books, but enough do that it is a reasonably entertaining game to identify ones who first appeared in another medium, particularly ones that have any degree of popularity today. They are defined primarily by a visual intensity and a sense of heritage tracing back to Action Comics #1. And they are worth fighting over because pulp heroes of that sort are a large part of contemporary culture, and have come to almost completely dominate the American comic book industry, in which large swaths of the War are fought. 

Figure 58: Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future traded on
the fantastic and brightly colored art of Frank
Hampson (From Eagle v3 #12, 1952)
But the War starts in Britain and remains, in the end, fought in Albion. And in British comics culture superheroes never gained the absolute dominance over the comics industry that they did in America. In British comics the first massively popular instance of highly visual pulp storytelling was Eagle, an anthology comic featuring stories in several genres headlined by the colourful adventures of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, and, crucially, dating to 1950, not 1938. And 1950 was squarely in the dead period of superhero comics between their World War II popularity and their Silver Age revivals. This meant that the British comics industry had several years in which to develop its own styles of highly visual pulp storytelling without any influence from American superheroes. 

Figure 59: All-Star Superman #1 cropped
to digest size.
Which meant, in turn, that in 1979 Grant Morrison could submit a story to Starblazer, a comic that simply would not have ever existed in the late 70s American comic book industry. Starblazer debuted in April of 1979, and became a twice-monthly title in July of the same year. Its concept is simple - single issue sci-fi stories (later broadened to include fantasy as well) sold in what’s known as “digest” format. Measuring at 13.5 x 17.5 centimeters (or roughly 5 x 7 inches), digests were about the height of a mass market paperback, but slightly wider at the base - similar to the formats used for science fiction magazines like Galaxy and New Worlds, as well as to American “digest” comics, the most famous of which were Gold Key’s efforts. Within British comics, digests were an interesting format; unlike the usual comics magazines they actually told single stories in a single issue instead of serializing several stories with an installment per issue. Also unlike the usual anthologies, digests generally told bespoke stories in each issue. Some characters might appear for multiple engagements, but there was no expectation that consecutively numbered issues would feature any of the same characters or plots.

Figure 60: Starblazer was the sci-fi sister
magazine of DC Thomson's still-popular
Commando (From Commando #124, 1964)
Starblazer was published from 1979 to 1991 by DC Thomson, a Dundee-based publisher most known for popular childrens’ comics The Beano and The Dandy, the former of which is still published and is currently the longest-running comic in the UK (the honour having been held by The Dandy until its 2012 cancellation). Starblazer was the sci-fi focused sister publication of the definitive digest-sized British comic, Commando, first published in 1961 and still running today. Commando, as its title suggests, was primarily focused on war comics, and its basic format of a sixty-four page war story in a single digest-sized issue became something of a standard for the form. Fleetway published scads of them under the generic “Picture Library” header, including War Picture Library, Valiant Picture Library, Top Secret Picture Library, Thriller Picture Library, Space Picture Library, and Lion Picture Library, some of which were devoted to particular genres, and others of which switched among multiple genres.

Grant Morrison’s first contribution to Starblazer was issue #15, entitled “Algol the Terrible,” and is the only one that he drew himself. Over the next decade he contributed seven more stories, culminating in 1987’s “The Rings of Gofannon,” his one fantasy story. These comics mark his only major comics work during the gap between the cancellation of Captain Clyde in 1982 and his return to the industry in 1985, and thus the only real bridge between his juvenilia and his later career. Despite this, they are in some ways the most ephemeral of Morrison’s early work. Where the Near Myths material tied into his career-defining work on The Invisibles and Captain Clyde foreshadowed his later superhero work (and gave him a convenient cudgel in his priority dispute with Alan Moore), his Starblazer work amounts to 512 pages of formulaic space action. (Or, rather, 448 pages of that and sixty-four of sword-and-sorcery adventure.) Nevertheless, Morrison, in several interviews, has suggested that Starblazer was formative work. In 2003 he discussed “learning the basics of comic storytelling from the expert editors at Thomson,” though a 2013 comment that all of his scripts for Starblazer got the same editorial note - “more space combat” - suggests that the description of “expert editors” may have been slightly tongue in cheek.
Figure 61: Grant Morrison's first contribution
to Starblazer, "Algol the Terrible" (1979)

Still, on the whole Morrison’s account of DC Thomson is on balance positive. In a 1988 interview he admits to having “a lot of fights” with his editors over things like his attempt to do a Starblazer story with a pacifist hero, and, more troublingly, his attempt to do a black hero, and complains that the pay for a Starblazer script was “ludicrously small.” But he also says, “I must admit to having a fondness for Starblazer and I try to contribute whenever I get the chance,” which is demonstrably true given that it was the only comics work he did from 1982-85. And it’s telling that, in an interview for Mark Salisbury’s 1999 anthology Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, he described how he “had two outlets from the start. One for the avant-garde stuff, where I could just blow out any shit from my head onto paper, and one for really mainstream commercial work.” What’s striking about this quote is the relative disdain with which he treats the Near Myths work. It is surely in part self-deprecating humor (the interview comes from a period where he had a similar split between his profoundly avant-garde work on The Invisibles and his exuberantly traditionalist JLA), but it reveals a clear investment in the mainstream and the value of the mainstream. And it’s true that the Starblazer comics show a narrative discipline that Morrison’s other early work does not. They are sixty-four page action stories done in the same model as all of the other digest comics of the time, only with space combat. 

Figure 62: Grant Morrison's creation of Herne
the Outlaw made an encore appearance in
Starblazer #86 (1982)
It is worth summarizing the contents of Morrison’s 512 pages of Starblazer work. His first story, as mentioned, is “Algol the Terrible,” which features a peaceful space alliance attacked by evil warlords led by, of all people, Algol the Terrible. “The Last Man on Earth,” in Starblazer #28, is about a young man named Gaunt who goes on a mission to retrieve “the stardust equation,” which has the secret of immortality, but who eventually has to double back and destroy the mad computer that sent him on the mission. “Operation Overkill,” from issue #45, features Mikal Kayn, a sunglasses-clad hero hunting an escaped criminal with a horde of terrifying creatures. Issue #86 featured “The Cosmic Outlaw,” which brings back the protagonist of “Algol the Terrible,” Herne, for a routine engagement fighting one of the last surviving Starbarons (also from “Algol the Terrible”). 1984’s “The Death Reaper,” in issue #127, features the return of Kayn from “Operation Overkill,” now given an origin and established as a blind ex-cop known “for methods to be found in no book.” This time he’s trying to solve the murder of his ex-partner, and ends up meeting Cinnibar, a sword-and-sorcery warrior in the Red Sonja mould. The pair returns in #167 for “Mind Bender,” where Kayn is called in by the very police that fired him for to unravel a conspiracy. And the two appear again in “The Midas Mystery” ten issues later, this time investigating who blew up an office building. And finally there’s “The Rings of Gofannon,” Morrison’s one sword-and-sorcery story, in issue #209, which features Goll, a Conan-esque warrior, searching for the titular ring.

Figure 63: Space combat (Starblazer
#15, 1979)
Many of these stories, though by no means all of them, have interesting twists within their premises. “The Rings of Gofannon,” for instance, hinges on the revelation that the ring is not, in fact, a piece of jewelry, but rather the route Goll and his servant take, which the act of traveling releases powerful magical energies. “The Last Man on Earth” features a not entirely dissimilar twist of a quest given in bad faith, such that the hero journeys out and back, finally confronting the evil questgiver over the true nature of the quest and using the power the villain sought against them. But in most of these stories the cleverness of the premise does not really seem to be the point. What is more important is the way the plot progresses through a series of action set pieces. The plot of Morrison’s first story is representative. 

It opens with Algol’s robotic servants attacking a group of ships and being interrupted by Herne, a lone fighter, who defeats them. There he’s given a medal by a dying astronaut and told to take it to Gondwane. Herne obliges, fighting more StarBarons on his way to Gondwane. In Gondwane he starts looking for Kelvin, the man he’s been sent to find, when he’s attacked by assassins sent by Algol. After dispatching them he gets information that Kelvin is at the north pole, so heads there, where his bar fight to get information about Kelvin is interrupted by another Starbaron attack, which is held off by the people of Hammerfest while Herne escapes. Algol nukes Hammerfest in revenge, then follows Herne to Thule, the planet mentioned by an old prospector in the bar as Kelvin’s next destination. There, after having the power of the medallion to destroy the StarBarons explained by Kelvin, Herne is attacked by Algol’s forces, prompting a race to the hidden weapon on Thule’s surface. Herne and his friends withstand a siege by Algol’s forces as they ready the weapon to fire, and manage to destroy Algol’s fleet before Algol can destroy the planet. Having accomplished this, Herne flies off to further adventure.

Figure 64: More space combat (Starblazer
#15, 1979)
The plot, as this description surely makes clear, is mostly just a series of contrivances to get the heroes from battle to battle. That is not to say that the story is lacking in wit. Herne is drawn from a ghost named in Shakespeare, and popularly linked to the larger Celtic concept of the horned god Cernunnos - this referencing of European folklore and mysticism is common in Morrison’s Starblazer scripts, which also namecheck Norse mythology, Hindu cosmology, and the Kabbalah. These are not exactly arch literary references - the names are just spread around the story, as though Morrison were using a mythological dictionary to grab planet and character names. On the other hand, they combine with the other real bit of flavor Morrison gives his stories, which is his quiet genre collisions. The Hammerfest sequence of “Algol the Terrible,” for instance, is a satisfying bit of a Western mixed into the sci-fi, while the Kayn stories regularly have sword and sorcery elements abutting their ostensible film noir in space premises. Indeed, the basic concept of Kayn as a sci-fi noir hero is quite clever, and it’s worth pointing out that DC Thomson used both Kayn and Cinnibar for a series of adventures after Morrison left the title, lending credence to Morrison’s claim to Salisbury that Starblazer taught him that “if you don’t have a strong character your story Is in trouble.” (This cannot even be attributed to wanting to bank on Morrison’s later reputation, as Starblazer stories all went out anonymously, and even when Starblazer listed credits years after the fact Morrison was credited as G.T. Morrison.) This genre blending is more similar to the “avant-garde” material Morrison was doing for Near Myths than he lets on.

Figure 65: Mikal Kayn and Cinnibar in non-space
combat from Starblazer #177 (Enrique Alcatena,
1986)
There is a larger question lurking in amongst this issue of formulaic action plots and genre-bending that throws much of what has transpired in these early maneuverings of the War. It is telling that the War begins over the subject of repetitive stories that blend genre tropes willy-nilly and are comprised of action set-pieces. For one thing, this is 1979, and the craze of Star Wars is at its height. That comics would nick its basic structure of “take a bunch of genre tropes and smash them together with lots of fight scenes” seems obvious. Fittingly, when Alan Moore finally arrives on the scene of this segment of the British comics industry one of his first gigs is for Marvel UK’s Star Wars title. But both Star Wars and Starblazer are just late 70s instances of a much longer tradition: the pulps.

Attempts to precisely divide up the subject matter under discussion into, for instance, a strict definition of pulp magazines and how they relate to penny dreadfuls and other forms of cheap fiction are doomed to failure. Suffice it to say that comics belong in a tradition of printed materials that offered fictional stories to the masses. If one wants to pretend at precision, the penny dreadfuls were a British invention - mid-19th century downmarket serialized fiction for the working class that couldn’t afford Dickens. Out of these came Sweeney Todd, made into a musical by Stephen Sondheim, and Sexton Blake, an enduring Sherlock Holmes knockoff. 

Figure 66: Edgar Rice Burroughs's
Tarzan stories first appeared in Argosy.
In the United States, meanwhile, the analogous trend was pulp magazines, named for the low-quality paper they were printed on. The first to market was Frank Munsey with a revamp of his magazine Argosy in the dying days of the 19th century. In 1903 Street & Smith (absorbed into Condé Nast in 1959) came to market with the cheekily titled The Popular Magazine, which secured the US publication rights to H. Rider Haggard’s sequel to his landmark She for publication in 1903. Haggard created one of the first proper pulp genres, the “Lost World” stories, which filled the pressing need to find new things for the British to colonize having visibly run out of places left on Earth. In these a distinguished Victorian adventurer would discover some remote pocket of a lost and primitive civilization. The iconic one came in 1885 with King Solomon’s Mines, which introduced Haggard’s most enduring creation, Allan Quatermain, who, along with no shortage of other pulp characters, will reemerge much later in the War in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The pulps were home to a raft of developments essential to the War - so many that it is impossible to cover them with the depth that they deserve within this narrative, such that a farcically brief and incomplete survey will have to suffice. Robert E. Howard invented the “sword and sorcery” subgenre with Conan the Barbarian in Weird Tales, also the home of H.P Lovecraft; Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in Black Mask; Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Alfred Bester crated the golden age of science fiction in pulps like Astounding Science Fiction; and Edgar Rice Burroughs created both Tarzan and John Carter for The All-Story, a sister magazine of Munsey’s Argosy. All of which is to say that the diversity of what was published under the banner of “the pulps” was tremendous. But one of the basic bread-and-butter structures of the pulps remained adventure stories of the sort that Haggard’s “Lost World” stories provided. Both of Burroughs’s creations fit squarely into this genre, but so, in their own way, did stories of Conan the Barbarian’s exploits in the ancient Hyborian Age. 

Figure 67: Weird Tales was not always
entirely on target in picking which
story to feature on the cover.
What these stories had in common was largely a feature of their serialization. The pulps were serialized magazines coming out weekly or monthly, meant to be scooped up excitedly by their readers. What we now read as novels like A Princess of Mars or King Solomon’s Mines were released over time, a chapter every week. The enduring classics of pulp literature sat alongside forgettable tripe of the highest order. For every classic Lovecraft story published in Weird Tales there are dozens of stories with cover descriptions like “THE ALBINO DEATHS - weird tortures in a ghastly abode of horrors - by Ronal Kayser,” which are, it seems likely, in deserved obscurity. But the breathless quality of that description is instructive. Consider the beginning of Howard’s first Conan story, with its epic thunder: “Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars,” before unleashing a torrent of names: “Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spiderhaunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry,” and note how the line has such poetic cadence, creating a near-rhyme between “mystery” and “chivaltry,” then leading into “Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold,” continuing its trend of precise and strangely-worded details: tombs that are guarded by shadows and riders in steel and luxury, before concluding, “but the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet,” a setup after which the audience knows Conan with a sort of breathless intimacy that demands further exploration.

Equally effective is the hard-boiled patter of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, pulling the reader forward with a wry self-confidence, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’s mystery-laden introduction to John Carter: “I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood.” One simply must know more. Indeed, the absence of this hypnotic prose in favor of banal action set pieces provides at least part of the explanation for why the John Carter film was so singularly unable to replicate the narrative magic of its source text. Their text was a sort of verbal spectacle, doing the same thing to language that Siegel and Shuster did for the comics page. 

But the chief engine of the narrative was the cliffhanger. [continued]

Comments

Daibhid C 4 years, 3 months ago

Oddly, I have no memory of Starblazer. When I was a kid, I used to accumulate Commandos, despite war stories never being my thing, because hey, they were comics and what was I supposed to do, not read them? But even as a sci-fi geek who loved Dr Who, 2000AD, etc., I didn't even know Starblazer existed until just a few years ago, by which time it didn't.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

But the chief engine of the narrative was the cliffhanger. [continued]

I see what you did there.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 3 months ago

I gather it had very little distribution outside of Scotland.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 3 months ago

Sometimes the obvious joke really is the correct one.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 3 months ago

I vaguely remember Starblazer - that is to say, I remember its existence, the actual stories evidently made no impression - and indeed I grew up in Scotland.

Commando was much more popular, and I do have memories of that. Not actual stories, but the general tenor of cheerful brutality and xenophobic stereotyping. In my mind, all Commando stories basically go like:

GERMAN SOLDIER
Die, Tommy schweinhund!

BRITISH SOLDIER
No sausage-swilling kraut's gonna get me!

[grenades, explosions, bayonets etc]

GERMAN SOLDIER
Aieee!

for 64 pages or whatever it was. They just don't tell 'em like that any more.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

Algol's spaceship looks a lot like a certain Battlestar (albeit with Enterprise nacelles).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

But sometimes the best way to build suspense is to break off right in the middle of the

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

Also, re Cosmic Outlaw: if the spacecraft really is doomed, how can anyone save it?

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Eric Gimlin 4 years, 3 months ago

As much as I'm enjoying the series, it seems like your coverage of the pulps is losing something in the compression. I can't spot any one statement that's incorrect, but as a whole some of it seems misleading. This is entirely possibly because I do collect at least some pulps, and am too close to the subject for something that's only a few paragraphs in your overall work.

For example, GALAXY was a digest that came along in 1950 and, while it is one of the most important books of the late golden age of SF it didn't come along until at least 10 years into said golden age. And only a handful of the pulps were weekly; Astounding SF and Weird Tales were never better than monthly.

This is minor at best, but it did catch my attention and throw me somewhat. I'm probably part of a diminishing group that would notice, and like I said no individual statement was wrong that I could see. I'm happy to help if there's anyway I can; but be warned I'm far from an expert myself.

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Nyq Only 4 years, 3 months ago

Likewise - I feel like something was hidden from me :(

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 3 months ago

That's fair. I may tinker this installment before I get the next one up - I had an idea for an illustration I should have done and didn't as well.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 3 months ago

Burroughs does have a way with opening lines. For example:

TARZAN OF THE APES: I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.

PIRATES OF VENUS: If a female figure in a white shroud enters your bedchamber at midnight on the thirteenth day of this month, answer this letter; otherwise, do not.

LAND OF HIDDEN MEN: “My Lord, I may go no farther,” said the Cambodian.

BEYOND THE FARTHEST STAR: I was shot down behind the German lines in September, 1989. [written around 1942]

BEWARE!: A small pane in the leaded glass of the window tinkled to the study floor, as the bullet embedded itself in the ebony paneling behind the Emperor.

TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE: Pellucidar, as every schoolboy knows, is a world within a world, lying, as it does, upon the inner surface of the hollow sphere which is the Earth.

THE LOST CONTINENT: Since earliest childhood I have been strangely fascinated by the mystery surrounding the history of the last days of twentieth century Europe.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 3 months ago

The reply button doesn't seem to be working, so imagine this comes straight after Nyq Only's comment.

Yeah, like Iain, I seem to have missed out on Starburst despite growing up in Scotland.

I would add that while Iain's dialogue sums up about 95% of Commandos, I was always fascinated by the rare exceptions. Stories where the baddies were greedy and fanatical officers on both sides, and Jerry and Tommy realise they have more in common with each other than with their superiors. They weren't common, but they did exist. I always imagined them being written by writers who just couldn't face writing the same old thing for the millionth time, and who probably *weren't* xenophobic themselves but knew what Commando was supposed to be like.

Thinking about it, I wonder if what Morrison learnt from "the expert editors at Thomson" was how to stick strictly to the letter of chafing editorial constraints, while at the same time actually doing whatever you felt like.

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timber-munki 4 years, 3 months ago

Strange that there's been no reprint collections of anything from Starblazer. Given the success of the various Commando nostalgia collections that have been put out in recent years. I suppose it's down to the poor sales/recognition south of the border wouldn't make it viable.

BTW will you be covering Morrison's Zoids work?

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drjon 4 years, 3 months ago

Strangely enough, we had Starblazer on the newsagency shelves here in Australia...

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Mazz 4 years, 3 months ago

I lived just outside London when these came out and remember them being fairly easily available, I know I got them from a couple of my local newsagents.

I think I had about the first 100 issues or so, yet another piece of my childhood that has disappeared over the years. I occasionally consider picking up old copies, but tend to be put off by the worry that they probably weren't much good...

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Katherine Sas 3 years, 4 months ago

Clever.

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Daru 2 years, 10 months ago

I have wonderful nostalgic memories of Starblazer, rekindled only recently by this blog. Thanks Phil.

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